Language & Communication14th December 2013

Zane Hema taking sign language interpretation seriously

The arrangements behind the BSL/English interpretation during the 2012 Paralympics and the Mandela Memorial could not be more stark

by Sarah Lawrence

In amongst the occasional show of great British stoicism, it is not unknown for people to have the occasional moan. For some time and not without some justification, the provision and quality of BSL/English interpreters has been one of the topics moaned about most.

However, in the shadow of the aftermath of what was probably the biggest sign language story in history, we thought it was timely to have a look back at one of the biggest events in recent times, the 2012 Paralympic Games and to compare how the British authorities handled the translation of the Queen’s opening of those games, to what transpired in South Africa.

New Zealander, Zane Rawiri Hema, was the BSL interpreter used during the opening ceremony. Brought up in New Zealand but now living in Brisbane, Australia, Zane came to London to learn British Sign Language in 1993. His interest in learning sign language came from his uncle who was Deaf and Zane’s inability to communicate with him inspired him to learn.

A thoughtful and conscientious young man, Zane was thrown into being a Communication Support Worker (CSW) for a Deaf student when the original CSW was unable to continue to support him. Despite knowing some sign language, Zane felt that he did not have all the skills and knowledge necessary to give this student 100% of the support he needed. Consequently, Zane went on to study Sign Language in London, including the Sign Language Interpreter Training, culminating in his completing a Post Graduate Diploma in BSL/English Interpreting in 2000.

Zane recalls how he felt during his first interpreter assignment. “I remember being nervous, not understanding everything and not having the knowledge and skill to interpret effectively. The job of interpreting is a very complex one that requires good training and focused practice and a commitment to embrace both language and the communities which use them.” This mindset and thoughtful approach would go on to serve him well and inform his delivery of interpreting services.

For Zane, being a sign language interpreter is not just about helping Deaf people to communicate effectively with others. “I love meeting Deaf people and feel privileged to have met Deaf people from all over the world,” he explains. “Such experiences have provided me with a richness of how Deaf people use language to articulate a whole range of feelings, emotions and perspectives on how they see the world. This has been invaluable to my working as an interpreter.”

Being chosen to interpret for the Queen’s opening of the Paralympic Games was a huge honour for Zane and his story behind his involvement is best told by Zane himself.

The co-Artistic Director for the Opening Ceremony, Jenny Sealey MBE, asked if I would interpret for Her Majesty the Queen when she officially declared open the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Initially, I thought it was a joke but it wasn’t. I was told I couldn’t tell anyone, only a handful of people would know. But my selection was not yet set in stone.

Understandably, there were a number of checks that needed to be done. I first had to have Ministry of Defence Counter Terrorist Clearance because I would be working in close proximity to Her Majesty. Without that, I wouldn’t be allowed near her.

As expected, I had to be a NRCPD Registered Interpreter because without that I would not have been able to be part of the interpreting team that supported the Deaf volunteers and professional cast at their rehearsals in the weeks leading up to the event.

When I was sent to the Costume Department to work out what I would wear, I offered to go and buy an M&S suit to work in because I didn’t really want to fork out money for a posh suit. I’m sure the head of the Costume Department nearly fainted at my suggestion! She took my measurements and made some decisions regarding colour and style and told me to come back in a week. My suit was made by Saville Row, shirt and tie by Armani and Italian shoes by Paulo Valdini. It all fitted like a glove and made me feel a million dollars.

I had to liaise with the Opening Ceremony Department to get a copy of the Queen’s speech, to schedule in rehearsals and to get a change in credentials that would allow me access to the VIP area on the night. This Department were also responsible for arranging for me to meet with The Queen’s Private Secretary to get briefed on protocol and get final instruction on how to make my way into place and how to exit once I was done. In addition, I would be introduced to the Head of Security on the night and to all the security personnel that would be working in the VIP area so they knew who I was and that when Her Majesty stood to officially declare the games open, that I would move to stand next to her.

The Queen’s Speech was only one line, ‘I declare open the London 2012 Paralympic Games’. One line doesn’t seem much, but I decided it was worth getting input from my Deaf colleagues in how I should interpret the line. Daryl Jackson, David Hay, David Ellington and Steven Webb discussed with me the possible interpretations. 

One issue that was contentious was the sign that I should use for Paralympics. The Deaf community have a sign for Paralympics that has been used for many years and is a widely accepted sign within the community both nationally and internationally. The sign in another context can also mean Disability. For other people, it looks like the signer is chopping off each arm.

The other issue from our discussions was in relation to the Paralympic logo or symbol. With the Olympic Games, the symbol is the 5 rings, whereas with the Paralympic Games, the symbol is three Agitos or 3 elements (red, blue and green – the 3 colours most widely represented in national flags of the world). The symbol is to show the bringing of athletes together from all corners of the world as well as to reflect the Paralympic motto of Spirit in Motion. We spent a lot of time discussing this and discussing what sign to use.  

I relied heavily on the input and contribution of my Deaf colleagues in what I would finally interpret. 

On the night of the opening ceremony, I arrived early to get changed but the hem on my trousers hadn’t been taken up, so I was told to dress anyway whilst the seamstress finished them off. There is a photo going around of me walking around the costume department in everything but my trousers!

I had to get up to the VIP area before lock down and the arrival of Her Majesty and I met my contact from the LOCOG Opening Ceremonies Department. She took me to Her Majesty’s Private Secretary who instructed me on how to address her if she spoke to me. He couldn’t confirm whether I would meet her, as there were quite a number of dignitaries that would be attending and also that she might want a little quiet moment before going out into the stadium.

Then I was taken to meet the Head of Security and the Security Team. This meeting took place out in the area where Her Majesty would arrive and be seated.  A space had been created next to where the Queen would be seated which would be the place I would stand to do the interpreting.

I was given instruction to remove all credentials and leave them inside the VIP area and to make my way outdoors to the VIP area in the stadium. I was told that when the President of the Paralympic Organising committee said “I would now like to handover to Her Majesty to officially declare open the Paralympic Games”, I was to move and stand behind her and wait for her to stand. When she stood, I was to move into position beside her. When she spoke, I was to interpret and then I was told to wait till she sat before stepping back out of position and making my exit.

All went according to plan and after I finished interpreting I stood in place waiting for Her Majesty to sit down. She didn’t. So I didn’t move. A lady came up behind me and tugged at my suit beckoning me to come away. I nodded I couldn’t but she insisted and so I stepped back feeling like I was insulting the Queen. I told the lady that I had been instructed not to move away until she sat down. The lady smiled understandingly and said there may have been a miscommunication, as the Queen was waiting to leave but couldn’t do so because I was blocking her exit. Oops!!

Feeling rather sheepish, I returned to the inside VIP area to pick up my credentials and then the doors reopened as Her Majesty entered. She caught my eye and gave me a gentle nod and in return I bowed slowly and she was gone.

All in all, it was a huge honour and a fantastic experience.

Given Zane’s involvement in the opening ceremony, you might expect him to consider this his greatest achievement. It’s not, Zane considers his greatest achievement to be the ability to communicate with his uncle, to sit and chat about about his father and to share in his uncle’s thoughts on life.

Zane is also delighted to learn about the Joint Agreement signed by the World Federation for the Deaf and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters to work together to improve the provision of interpreters around the world. “Deaf people's access to sign language and a sign language interpreter is a human right and I look forward to this being enshrined in law so they have protection and can begin to take as equal a place in society as everyone else,” Zane comments determinedly.

As we quickly approach the festive season, I asked Zane to tell me about a funny experience.

“I was interpreting (with too little preparation) for a Christmas service once from a small stage and the dry flower arrangements caught fire and there was smoke everywhere. I couldn't see the Deaf people in the congregation as they were seated towards the back. Whilst flapping my arms to brush the smoke out of the way, I knocked my glasses off and they rolled off the stage. Then a young baby in the front row started crying loudly so I couldn't hear the minister. After the dry flower arrangements were removed, the young baby stopped crying and the minister had stopped preaching, the choir stood up and sang a song in Welsh before finishing off with 'the 12 days of Christmas'. I was a bit depressed when I went home”.

The engagement of Zane to be the interpreter at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games seems to stand in stark contrast to the arrangements made for the Mandela Memorial Service. The initial checks and staging post actions show that with good planning, proper consideration and professional delivery, the provision of BSL/English interpretation can be highly effective.

Tokenism towards the provision of interpretation in any context undermines the importance for accuracy and precision and undoubtedly damages any relationship with Deaf people.

The use of a properly qualified and registered interpreters, even for the translation of the nine words spoken by the Queen, makes all the difference.  As Zane himself observes about the South African situation, “I doubt very much whether this sort of things could happen in the UK and in many other countries. I feel for the South African Deaf community who knew the world would be watching and who would be expecting to have their very best ready to interpret at such an auspicious occasion. This event was not just any event, it was a global memorial service to one of their own, one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.  Having their best to interpret would enable those Deaf watching or in attendance to have access and be able to participate.”

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Community / Language & Communication

14th December 2013